PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On the first day of spring training 2024, David Stearns didn’t exactly join Davey Johnson in New York Mets lore.
Johnson famously told players on the ’86 team they wouldn’t just win; they would dominate — a prophecy fulfilled by a 108-win season and a championship. On Monday, Stearns said the Mets expect to have “a good team” and “compete for a playoff spot.”
Unsurprisingly, these are muted goals. Since the Mets’ trade deadline pivot last summer, we’ve spent a lot of time parsing their words about ambitions for 2024. They’d be “competitive,” as Steve Cohen and then-general manager Billy Eppler said at the time. Stearns clarified that “competitive” meant contending for the postseason.
In his first meeting with the media at spring training, Stearns said the goal is to be a “championship-caliber organization” with a “playoff-caliber team” — perhaps a noteworthy distinction in the short term.
Stearns has focused more on making the playoffs than on winning the division, and he acknowledged Monday that “the external experiences aren’t going to have us with the Braves right now.” (Baseball Prospectus projects Atlanta to win 101 games, 17 more than the Mets.)
That said, the National League’s sixth-place finisher has played in the World Series each of the past two seasons. And Stearns said he hasn’t had to inject any optimism into the Mets’ clubhouse. A team that won 101 games in 2022, a team that entered last season believing itself to be a legitimate championship contender, doesn’t view itself as that far removed from those ambitions.
“Really from the moment I took the job, (the players) wanted me to know how good they think the team is,” Stearns said. “They wanted me to know that they didn’t think the way ’23 played out was indicative of the talent level on the team. … I think those guys and we as an organization have a belief in the talent that is in that room.”
And Stearns doesn’t shy away from Cohen’s hopes for a championship contender soon. This is Year 4 of Cohen’s ownership; he memorably said he’d be disappointed if the Mets didn’t win a championship in his first five years as an owner, though he has walked back that remark since.
“The vision that Steve laid out at the front end of his ownership tenure is still very much the vision of this organization,” Stearns said. “We expect ourselves — and our fan base certainly expects us — to be a championship-caliber organization. That is success for our organization. And that’s the bar that we’re going to measure ourselves against.”
What makes an organization “championship-caliber,” aside, of course, from winning a championship?
“That speaks to everything that an organization stands for, everything that an organization tries to accomplish,” Stearns said. “It means competing for championships and playing at a championship-caliber level every single year. It’s really tough to do, but certainly that’s our goal. And it extends to how we operate in the community, what our fan experience is like.”
Here are some other key takeaways from the first day at Clover Park:
Door open to an addition
As much as Stearns wants to learn more about his younger players’ capabilities, he conceded that a scenario exists in which adding someone with a more proven track record may become too good to pass up.
“I don’t think that’s out of the question,” Stearns said. “We’re always trying to evaluate opportunity and understand the risk and reward, and the tradeoffs.”
The designated hitter position continues to be a spot where a battle persists between the desire to evaluate a young player like Mark Vientos versus adding a potential upgrade for 2024, perhaps someone like J.D. Martinez.
Stearns listed DH as a spot that features some competition. Vientos and DJ Stewart linger as options, plus the Mets may want to rotate the spot to rest veterans, including Starling Marte. Since Stearns’ hiring in October, he has talked about his interest in learning more about what some of the Mets’ young players can do at the major-league level after proving themselves against Triple-A pitching. For example, Vientos has logged only 274 plate appearances in the major leagues; for many evaluators, that’s far from enough of a sample to make a determination on a player.
In the meantime, Martinez, Brandon Belt and others loom as external options. Given their past performances, it’s possible that adding a player like them would increase the Mets’ win total by a couple of games. Might that be the difference in making a playoff spot? Is that worth spending on? Is that worth taking time away from younger players? Stearns said Cohen is not someone who operates with a hard budget line. “It’s always what’s in the best interest of the organization,” Stearns said.
What’s best for the Mets in 2024 and beyond?
Does the answer to that question create any temptation to add a bat to the lineup?
“There’s always temptation to get better and there’s always temptation when there are good players available to see how they fit on the roster,” Stearns said. “There’s no perfect answer to this one. We’ve talked about this one before. When you add a more established player, it’s going to by nature take playing time away from younger players, and we have to walk that balance.”
Regarding contract discussions between Pete Alonso and the Mets, “probably the most likely outcome,” according to Stearns, involves both parties waiting until after the season to discuss a potential deal.
For a while — really, since Alonso hired Scott Boras as his agent at the start of the offseason — that has seemed to be the case. He is set to be a free agent at the end of the season. Throughout the offseason, there was no indication that the two sides had discussed a long-term deal on a serious level. But that’s not exactly a cause for concern nor is it a surprise; the Mets experienced a similar situation with Brandon Nimmo, another Boras client, who ended up re-signing with the club.
“When you have a really talented player who’s really good who’s entering his final year of club control, who happens to be represented by Scott Boras, these things generally end up into free agency,” Stearns said. “And we understand that. This is an organization that’s dealt with that before with really good players. And it’s ended up in a perfectly fine spot.”
It would be surprising if the Mets didn’t engage with Alonso about continuing his career with the club once the season ends.
Stearns has yet to see Alonso at camp, but he has prepared a message for the slugging first baseman.
“What we’re going to talk about is, ‘Let’s go out and have a great year together. You go out, have a great year. Let’s have a great year as a team,’” Stearns said. “And if we do that, we’re both going to be set up — the organization and Pete — very well going into the offseason.”
Starling Marte is healthy
Outfielder Starling Marte represents one of the biggest questions facing the club this spring: What can they reasonably expect after groin surgery and other ailments limited him to just 86 games in 2023?
While in the Dominican Republic, Stearns watched Marte play in winter ball and said he was most encouraged by Marte’s health.
“It was clear watching him play that he was healthy,” Stearns said. “The game I was at, he had to handle a number of balls down the right-field line and he got there easily and looked like Starling Marte in the outfield.”
Can Marte produce like the Marte of the past, though? Availability was a vital first hurdle to clear, but production remains a significant question. Last year, Marte posted just a .625 OPS with five home runs. However, on the positive side for him, he stole 24 bases — a big number, considering his lack of time on the field — and was caught just four times. The Mets sorely missed his combination of power and speed during a disappointing season. Now at 35, how much of it can they bank on returning?
Where is there roster competition?
The Mets enter camp with a few spots undetermined on their 26-man Opening Day roster. Stearns pointed to third base, designated hitter, at least one bench spot and the last couple of spots for the bullpen as open, to some extent, for competition.
At third base, Brett Baty is the incumbent and the frontrunner, despite last year’s struggles. Stearns said the club still believes in Baty. He mentioned Vientos as capable of playing the position, as well, with veteran Joey Wendle and waiver claim Zack Short as others on the 40-man roster.
Vientos and Stewart are in line to see most of the DH at-bats if the roster remains unchanged. Any addition at DH would influence the construction of the bench. Vientos and Stewart both have minor-league options, and the Mets may want to carry more defensive versatility among their reserves.
Additions late in the winter have added depth to the bullpen picture. Jake Diekman is certainly in line for an Opening Day roster spot, and Shintaro Fujinami showed some hard-throwing promise as a rookie last year. (Fujinami’s signing has not been formally introduced; expect that Wednesday when the club can place Ronny Mauricio and David Peterson on the 60-day injured list.)
Stearns mentioned two spots being available. We’ll speculate that the six names penciled into the Opening Day bullpen are Edwin Díaz, Brooks Raley, Adam Ottavino, Drew Smith, Diekman and Jorge López. That would leave a battle between the likes of Fujinami, Michael Tonkin, Phil Bickford, Sean Reid-Foley and Yohan Ramirez. Only Fujinami in that group possesses minor-league options.
(One non-roster invitee already out of the competition: right-hander Kyle Crick, who has a calf strain and is expected to miss most of spring training.)
For what it’s worth, Stearns said he doesn’t start thinking seriously about such roster battles until the second week of March, about a month away.
“We see who is still healthy, who’s on track to play on Opening Day,” he said, “because sometimes it looks a little bit different when we get to that time frame than it might today.”
(Top photo of Mark Vientos: John Jones / USA Today)